comedy

Reviewing The Last of the Bowmans

9781843442776

For today’s stop on the blog tour for The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson I’m not going to write a review. You’ve already read a few of those I’m sure, and anyway I wrote one for The Bookbag about a month ago (go read it now if you like, I’ll wait). Instead, I thought I’d tell you why I wrote the review in the first place.

Reviewing books for The Bookbag is always a thrill because I get to pick from their list of available books, some of which haven’t even been published yet (the exclusivity!), then I get a book dropping through the letterbox, which perks up the day no end. The fiction list usually includes debut authors, authors who’ve been around a while but haven’t crossed my radar, and authors I’m familiar with. New and emerging authors often sway me, they probably benefit more from a review than a bigger name with an established fanbase, and I might turn up something unexpected. J Paul Henderson wasn’t a name I’d come across before, having completely missed his debut novel Last Bus to Coffeeville despite both Leeds and Bradford libraries having copies in stock. The last few books I’d reviewed had been crime or fairly intense sci-fi so I was looking for something lighter, though not necessarily out and out comedy. I looked at the details of What a Way to Go by Julia Forster (hmm, maybe) then The Last of the Bowmans (his brother’s doing what and his Uncle Frank WHAT? Visited by his dead father?!). It certainly sounded different and it was the little details in the synopsis that grabbed me and made me take notice. His father wasn’t just dead he was in a bamboo coffin, of all things; his brother’s not just a stalker but stalking a woman with no feet. Intriguing. Could go either way, I thought, depends how he’s likely to come at it – what else do we know about this author? He’s from Bradford – done deal.

In case you haven’t read a review or even a synopsis yet, here’s what the novel’s about: Greg Bowman’s been in America for a few years, staying in touch with his dad Lyle and Lyle’s barmy brother Frank, but not with his own brother Billy. Never the most reliable member of the Bowman family, nevertheless Greg makes it home for Lyle’s funeral and sticks around to help sort out his affairs and do up the house, in no way using it as an excuse not to return to his girlfriend in Texas (honest). It’s while Greg is sitting down to dinner at his dad’s house after a day of planning and inventories that the ghost of Lyle appears to him and asks him to take over some unfinished business – sorting out Frank and Billy. Henpecked Billy has become a stalker, and Uncle Frank the Planet Rock listening Wild West aficionado is planning, aged nearly eighty, to rob a bank. Greg reluctantly starts unpicking family secrets and finds a startling one of his dad’s that he’s not sure what to do with.

Comedy’s never an easy thing to pull off in a novel, and comedy drama (I think) is even harder, but The Last of the Bowmans cracks it. I once described A Touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood as ‘understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best’, and The Last of the Bowmans definitely follows in its footsteps with its odd characters and surreal situations interleaved with the humdrum. It’s the mundane details that make it, they ground the whole thing so that it’s that much easier to accept a ghost in a ballgown having a chat with his son, for instance. I’m not saying it’s flawless (neither was A Touch of Daniel, few books are) but it found its groove early on and powered along at a fair clip. In my (biased) opinion, northern writers tend to handle comedy drama better than most because it chimes with a certain northern approach to life, a general attitude that doesn’t take the world too seriously. The tragicomic prologue of The Last of the Bowmans where eighty-three-year-old Lyle dies in the pursuit of a chocolate bar sets the mood nicely, and you can’t beat a good funeral scene in a book like this. Particularly if you’ve got a cantankerous old bachelor like Uncle Frank there to wind up the vicar and assorted attendant old women. The book is dedicated ‘For the Uncle Franks of this world’ and I have to say Frank was probably my favourite character, I like an eccentric that goes his own way and his love of Planet Rock helped.

As well as the obvious family themes (commonalities among differences, misunderstandings and different viewpoints or versions of past events) there’s the idea of the returning wanderer with Greg. Through his eyes we see what’s changed (and what, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t) in the seven years of his absence. The distance, both from the place and the people he left behind, has given him a different perspective on his family and – partly because he’s cleaned up his act, partly because of his mission from Lyle – he’s attuned to things he would once have missed. Having left West Yorkshire and family myself for a similar amount of time to Greg, I remember that dual feeling of coming home and being a stranger and I think that helped draw me in. There are extra resonances for me in that Billy lives in an unnamed small town in the Wharfe Valley that could well be heavily based on the bit of Wharfedale I can see from my study window, and one of my sisters (like Billy) was forced into a change of direction fifteen years ago when the mills closed and her niche job didn’t exist any more.

Whatever your background, if you enjoy a good black comedy The Last of the Bowmans will make you laugh even as it makes you think about how much you really know your nearest and dearest. And if you do happen to be from West Yorkshire, so much the better.

The Last of the Bowmans was released by No Exit Press on January 21st and you can get it in print, for Kindle, or as an epub (see the No Exit Press website for details). My proof copy came via The Bookbag (thank you!), so I could review it for them over there.

In praise of Mitchell and Webb

What with not having a TV, and usually remembering at five to seven that there’s comedy on Radio 4 at 6.30, it took me a while to encounter Mitchell and Webb. Having seen some of their last TV sketch series on the iplayer, I’ve been (mainly) remembering to listen to the current Radio 4 series, and I’m very glad I have. Intelligent comedy that isn’t just political satire! Who could ask for more? If you haven’t heard the Old Lady Job Justification sketches then you’re missing a treat. And probably a good opportunity to re-examine your life.

Lines culled from a sitcom

A couple of weeks ago, Big Brother kindly lent me (i.e. I went to his house, picked up and walked away with) all 4 series of Blackadder on DVD. Coincidentally I’ve since heard it’s 25 years since the first series aired on British TV, and there’s a retrospective on over Christmas, even though it’s now 19 years since it last aired (unless you count the hundreds of repeats). The first series, my least favourite, borrows heavily from Shakespeare (so it says in the DVD inlay – I have little experience and less enjoyment of Shakespeare’s plays) but watching the second series for the first time in years, I realised how heavily I’ve borrowed from it. Some of the dialogue is so spot-on that it’s crept into my everyday stock of borrowed wit and gets used wholesale, frequently. Whether some of the phrases were popular before Blackadder, or whether they were all original I don’t know, but I’d forgotten that’s where I’d picked them up, and in some cases I’m disappointed to find that they’re not mine after all. I have been told (particularly in the case of Resurrection Joe) that I’m not bad at dialogue, but I’ve got a long way to go to match this.

Maths jokes for beginners

Another tip from my Guardian book of how to write comedy was to find a niche, be original, don’t just cover the same old ground. Interestingly, the intended composition of the proposed sketch group (being deliberately tentative in case we hate each other as writing partners and the idea folds at the first meeting) is firmly science based: S and B are nearly at the end of PhDs in engineering, though S did physics and computing beforehand, and between Mark and I we have degrees in astrophysics, theoretical physics, maths, philosophy of science, and six years of largely pointless research in applied maths.

To the outsider, that might not seem like a rich comedic vein, but when Mark and I were students together we talked about producing a comic based on our department. We wrote down the incidents, outbursts and conversations around us, but when we looked through them they all seemed too outlandish and surreal, and we figured no-one would accept it. The departmental computing officer walking into a room playing a tune on a child’s purple plastic caterpillar for no apparent reason. The student who travelled a hundred miles to collect sponsorship money of fifty pence. The fabulous moment in a seminar when the guest speaker said of his equations ‘They’re wrong in a number of ways. In particular they’re wrong because they don’t give the right answer’ with a perfectly straight face.

Of course most of this isn’t science-specific, it’s just the weirdness of human nature, but with a bunch of mathematicians or physicists in the vicinity, there’s a higher concentration of weirdness than in the general population. And that’s before you even get onto the genuine subject-specific jokes. I know quite a few bad theoretical physics jokes, but the number of people who understand them isn’t huge, and the number who’d laugh is a lot smaller. Once, that may have been a drawback, but with all the highly specific websites out there, not to mention the proliferation of niche radio and TV channels, a comedy show for people with a maths, physics or environmental engineering background doesn’t seem that far-fetched, and if nothing else, we’re unlikely to have much competition.

A funny thing happened on the way to the podcast

Having been a student for 9 years (in total, not consecutively) at 3 universities, I only ever joined one society for 2 years and that was the rock society which got me a discount at HMV and cheap entry to my favourite club. Now that I’m staff, suddenly I’m joining student societies left, right and centre. Or rather, I’m going along to the first meeting, realising why I didn’t bother when I was a student, and not going back.

Last weekend I went to the first meeting for this academic year of the comedy sketch society; I wasn’t intending to perform, I just thought I’d have a go at being on the writing team, but I was aware before I went along that there are many types of humour out there and it may well be that mine didn’t fit with the majority of the group. What I wasn’t prepared for was such an amazing culture clash: I’d be hard pushed to claim to be working class, but my grandparents were, and dammit I’m northern, I ought to be allowed some leeway on this, so with only the slightest sense of irony I’ll assert my bemusement at the roomful of pretentious new students eager to audition for the comedy troupe.

Maybe they were all in character from the moment they stepped in the room, but somehow I doubt it. OneMonkey’s friends S and B (genuinely working class and therefore even more justifiably bemused/enraged than I was) and I were very out of place, and not in terms of humour (though I hadn’t heard of half the comedy shows they were all claiming as influences. It may be that they were making them up, or deliberately being obscure to try and outdo each other, or it may just be that I haven’t owned a telly in nearly 8 years and none of them listen to radio 4). One young lad with studiously messy hair was actually wearing a cricket jumper and chinos.

It may have turned out to be a wasted afternoon in terms of joining a comedy society, but my impassioned recounting of the experience to OneMonkey and my artist friend Mark gave them both a good laugh. Which bodes well for the forthcoming attempt on the part of S, B, one of B’s friends, Mark (possibly) and myself to form our own sketch group with the intention (gasp!) of a podcast. I only have a hazy idea of what a podcast involves but I’ll leave that aspect of it to whoever came up with the plan, and I’ll concentrate on writing. Luckily, only the other day my dad gave me a booklet from The Guardian on how to write comedy; armed with the knowledge imparted in chapter 4, how to write sketches, I should be unstoppable. One of the tips from Richard Herring was to write a blog every day, so for once I’m doing some useful writing here and not just waffling into the abyss.

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

This morning I was woken from my peaceful, if overlong, weekend slumbers by an excited phonecall from One Monkey’s dad. Being retired and having broadband, for the last two weeks he’s been checking 365tomorrows eagerly over his morning coffee, and this morning my story appeared. That woke me up about as quickly as a cold flannel to the back of the neck, and before I was even tea-and-croissanted the message had been passed along to my parents and siblings. Big Brother (the sibling as opposed to the shadowy authority figure. Although…) facetiously asked if I’d had a call from a publisher yet, though you could tell there was a bit of pride there by the way we quickly established that my writing is partly his fault: we used to act out Goon Shows from my dad’s books of the scripts, and BB (as we may as well call him, if only for the Goons’ 1985 reference) suggested I write one of my own. Thus was born the infamous (in our family, anyway) Goon script in which a mysterious deadly weapon turns out to be my dad’s sweaty socks; neither BB nor I can find the script now, which is probably a good thing as it’s undoubtedly not nearly as funny as we remember it.

He may not have single-handedly set me off down the path of the writer, but BB and his Goon Show encouragement certainly set me off a year or two later with the equally infamous Boss and Whoops; these bungling burglars created by my best friend T and I in an English lesson at the age of 11 or so, featured repeatedly in English and Drama for the next few years. We started out with a Goons-style radio script, we did stories, mimes, and eventually a full-blown and rather complicated play, rehearsals for which allowed us to stay indoors during school lunchbreaks for a term or two, though due to bad organisation, and one of the lead actresses getting sent away to boarding school to try and keep her out of trouble, the play itself was never performed. This may have been for the best; though T and I had been brought up on Hancock and the Goons, as well as a liberal helping of Monty Python, most of our contemporaries had a very different sense of humour, and I can’t imagine that it would have gone down too well.

Which brings me neatly back to today (clever, eh?) – my first wholly independent (i.e. not following on from a previous installment like the BBC7 episode) work of fiction in the public domain. Some people will think it’s rubbish, some may offer constructive criticism, and I hope that some will enjoy it. As with everything I write, I look back at it now and see a dozen changes I could make, glaring lines that cry out for improvement or removal, but I’ve cut it loose now and it has to stand as I left it. The initial excitement gives way to nervousness as I realise how vulnerable a writer becomes with every publication.